Differentiated Instruction: comparing 2 subjects

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to meet the various needs of students in our classrooms lately.  If we think about it, we are REALLY good at differentiated instruction in subjects like writing, yet, we struggle to do differentiated instruction well in subjects like math.  Why is this???

In writing class, everyone seems to have an entry point.  The teacher puts a prompt up on the board and everyone writes.  Because the prompt is open, every student has something to write about, yet the writing of every student looks completely different. That is, the product, the process and/or the content differs for each student to some degree.

Teachers who are comfortable teaching students how to write know that they start with having students write something, then they provide feedback or other opportunities for them to improve upon.  From noticing what students do in their writing, teachers can either ask students to fix or improve upon pieces of their work, or they can ask the class to work on specific skills, or ask students to write something new the next day because of what they have learned.  Either way the teacher uses what they noticed from the writing sample and asks students to use what they learned and improve upon it!

In Math class, however, many teachers don’t take the same approach to learning.  Some tell every student exactly what to do, how to do it, and share exactly what the finished product should look like.  OR… in the name of differentiated instruction, some teachers split their class into different groups, those that are excelling, those that are on track, and those that need remediation.  To them, differentiated instruction is about ability grouping – giving everyone different things.  The two teachers’ thinking above are very different aren’t they!

Imagine these practices in writing class again.  Teacher 1 (everyone does the exact same thing, the exact same way) would show students how to write a journal (let’s say), explain about the topic sentence, state the number of sentences needed per paragraph, walk every student through every step.  The end products Teacher 1 would get, would be lifeless replications of the teacher’s thinking!  While this might build some competence, it would not be supporting young creative writers.

Teacher 2 (giving different things to different groups) on the other hand would split the class into 3 or 4 groups and give everyone a different prompt.  “Some of you aren’t ready for this journal writing topic!!!”  Students in the high group would be allowed to be creative… students in the middle group wouldn’t be expected to be creative, but would have to do most of what is expected… and those in the “fix-up” group would be told exactly what to do and how to do it.  While this strategy might seem like targeted instruction, sadly those who might need the most help would be missing out on many of the important pieces of developing writers – including allowing them to be engaged and interested in the creative processes.

Teacher 1 might be helpful for some in the class because they are telling specific things that might be helpful for some.

Teacher 2 might be helpful for some of the students in the class too… especially those that might feel like they are the top group.

But something tells me, that neither are allowing their students to reach their potential!!!

Think again to the writing teacher I described at the beginning.  They weren’t overly prescriptive at first, but became more focused after they knew more about their students.  They provided EVERYONE opportunity to be creative and do the SAME task!

In math, the most effective strategy for differentiating instruction, in my opinion, is using open problems.  When a task is open, it allows all students to access the material, and allows all students to share what they currently understand.  However, this isn’t enough.  We then need to have some students share their thinking in a lesson close (this can include the timely and descriptive feedback everyone in the group needs).  Building the knowledge together is how we learn.  This also means that future problems / tasks should be built on what was just learned.


We know that to differentiate instruction is to allow for differences in the products, content and/or processes of learning… However, I think what might differ between teacher’s ability to use differentiated instruction strategies is if they are Teacher-Centered… or Student-Centered!

Differentiated Instruction.jpg

When we are teacher-centered we believe that it is our job to tell which students should be working on which things or aim to control which strategies each student will be learning.  However, I’m not convinced that we would ever be able to accurately know which strategies students are ready for (and therefore which ones we wouldn’t want them to hear), nor am I convinced that giving students different things regularly is healthy for our students.

Determining how to place students in groups is an important decision.  Avoid continually grouping by ability.  This kind of grouping, although well-intentioned, perpetuates low levels of learning and actually increases the gap between more and less dependent students.  Instead, consider using flexible grouping in which the size and makeup of small groups vary in a purposeful and strategic manner.  When coupled with the use of differentiation strategies, flexible grouping gives all students the chance to work successfully in groups. Van de Walle – Teaching Student Centered Mathematics

If we were to have students work on a problem in pairs, we need to be aware that grouping by ability as a regular practice can actually lead students to develop fixed mindsets – that is they start to recognize who is and who isn’t a math student.

Obviously there are times when some students need remediation, however, I think we are too quick to jump to remediation of skills instead of attempting to find ways to allow students to make sense of things in their own way followed by bringing the learning / thinking together to learn WITH and FROM each other.

To make these changes, however, I think we need to spend more time thinking about what a good problem or rich task should look like!  Maybe something for a future post?

As always, I want to leave you with a few reflective questions:

  • I chose to compare what differentiated instruction looks like in mathematics to what it looks like in writing class.  However, I often hear more comparisons between reading and mathematics.  Do you see learning mathematics as an expressive subject like writing or a receptive subject like reading?
  • Where do you find tasks / problems that offer all of your students both access and challenge (just like a good writing prompt)?  How do these offer opportunities for your students to vary their process, product and/or content?
  • Once we provide open problems for our students, how do you leverage the reasoning and representations from some in the room to help others learn and grow?
  • Math is very different than Literacy.  Reading and writing, for the most part, are skills, while mathematics is content heavy.  So how do you balance the need to continually learn new things with the need to continually make connections and build on previous understanding?
  • What barriers are there to viewing differentiated instruction like this?  How can we help as an online community?

For more on this topic I encourage you to read How do we meet the needs of so many unique students in a mixed-ability classroom?  or take a look at our Ontario Ministry’s vision for Differentiated Instruction in math: Differentiating Mathematics Instruction

I’d love to continue the conversation.  Write a response, or send me a message on Twitter ( @markchubb3 ).

How do you give feedback?

There seems to be a lot of research telling us how important feedback is to student performance, however, there’s little discussion about how we give this feedback and what the feedback actually looks like in mathematics. To start with, here are a few important points research says about feedback:

  • The timing of feedback is really important
  • The recipient of the feedback needs to do more work than the person giving the feedback
  • Students need opportunities to do something with the feedback
  • Feedback is not the same thing as giving advice

I will talk about each of these toward the end of this post.  First, I want to explain a piece about feedback that isn’t mentioned enough…  Providing students with feedback positions us and our students as learners.  Think about it for a second, when we “mark” things our attention starts with what students get right, but our attention moves quickly to trying to spot errors. Basically, when marking, we are looking for deficits. On the other hand, when we are giving feedback, we instead look for our students’ actual thinking.  We notice things as almost right, we notice misconceptions or overgeneralization…then think about how to help our students move forward.  When giving feedback, we are looking for our students strengths and readiness.  Asset thinking is FAR more productive, FAR more healthy, FAR more meaningful than grades!

Feedback Doesn’t Just Happen at the End!

Let’s take an example of a lesson involving creating, identifying, and extending linear growing patterns.  This is the 4th day in a series of lessons from a wonderful resource called From Patterns to Algebra.  Today, the students here were asked to create their own design that follows the pattern given to them on their card.

Their pattern card read: Output number = Input number x3+2
Their pattern card read:  Output number = Input number x7
Their pattern card read:  Output number = Input number x4


Their pattern card read:  Output number = Input number x3+1
Their pattern card read:  Output number = Input number x8+2
Their pattern card read: Output number = Input number x5+2

Once students made their designs, they were instructed to place their card upside down on their desk, and to circulate around the room quietly looking at others’ patterns.  Once they believed they knew the “pattern rule” they were allowed to check to see if they were correct by flipping over the card.

After several minutes of quiet thinking, and rotating around the room, the teacher stopped everyone and led the class in a lesson close that involved rich discussions about specific samples around the room.  Here is a brief explanation of this close:

Teacher:  Everyone think of a pattern that was really easy to tell what the pattern rule was.  Everyone point to one.  (Class walks over to the last picture above – picture 6).  What makes this pattern easy for others to recognize the pattern rule?  (Students respond and engage in dialogue about the shapes, colours, orientation, groupings…).

Teacher:  Can anyone tell the class what the 10th position would look like?  Turn to your partner and describe what you would see.  (Students share with neighbor, then with the class)

Teacher:  Think of one of the patterns around the room that might have been more difficult for you to figure out.  Point to one you want to talk about with the class.  (Students point to many different ones around the room.  The class visits several and engages in discussions about each.  Students notice some patterns are harder to count… some patterns follow the right number of tiles – but don’t follow a geometric pattern, some patterns don’t reflect the pattern listed on the card.  Each of these noticings are given time to discuss, in an environment that is about learning… not producing.  Everyone understands that mistakes are part of the learning process here and are eager to take their new knowledge and apply it.

The teacher then asks students to go back to their desks and gives each student a new card.  The instructions are similar, except, now she asks students to make it in a way that will help others recognize the patterns easily.

The process of creating, walking around the room silently, then discussing happens a second time.

To end the class, the teacher hands out an exit card asking students to articulate why some patterns are easier than others to recognize.  Examples were expected from students.

At the beginning of this post I shared 4 points from research about feedback.  I want to briefly talk about each:

The timing of feedback is really important

Feedback is best when it happens during the learning.  While I can see when it would be appropriate for us to collect items and write feedback for students, having the feedback happen in-the-moment is ideal!   Dan Meyer reminds us that instant feedback isn’t ideal.  Students need enough time to think about what they did right/wrong… what needs to be corrected.  On the other hand, having students submit items, then us giving them back a week later isn’t ideal either!  Having this time to think and receive feedback DURING the learning experience is ideal.  In the example above, feedback happened several times:

  1. As students walked around looking at patterns.  After they thought they knew the pattern, they peeked at the card.
  2. As students discuss several samples they are given time to give each other feedback about which patterns make sense… which ones visually represented the numeric value… which patterns could help us predict future visuals/values
  3. Afterward once the teacher collected the exit cards.

The recipient of the feedback needs to do more work than the person giving the feedback

Often we as teachers spend too much time writing detailed notes offering pieces of wisdom.  While this is often helpful, it isn’t a feasible thing to do on a daily basis. In fact, us doing all of the thinking doesn’t equate to students improving!  In the example above, students were expected to notice patterns that made sense to them, they engaged in conversations about the patterns.  Each student had to recognize how to make their pattern better because of the conversations.  The work of the feedback belonged, for the most part, within each student.

Students need opportunities to do something with the feedback

Once students receive feedback, they need to use that feedback to continue to improve.  In the above example, the students had an opportunity to create new patterns after the discussions.  After viewing the 2nd creations and seeing the exit cards, verbal or written feedback could be given to those that would benefit from it.

Feedback is not the same thing as giving advice

This last piece is an interesting one.  Feedback, by definition, is about seeing how well you have come to achieving your goal.  It is about what you did, not about what you need to do next.  “I noticed that you have switched the multiplicative and additive pieces in each of your patterns” is feedback.  “I am not sure what the next position would look like because I don’t see a pattern here” is feedback.  “The additive parts need to remain constant in each position” is not feedback… it is advice (or feedforward).

In the example above, the discussions allowed for ample time for feedback to happen.  If students were still struggling, it is appropriate to give direct advice.  But I’m not sure students would have understood any advice, or retained WHY they needed to take advice if we offered it too soon.

So I leave you with some final questions for you:

  • When do your students receive feedback?  How often?
  • Who gives your students their feedback?
  • Is it written?  Or verbal?
  • Which of these do you see as the most practical?  Meaningful for your students?  Productive?
  • How do you make time for feedback?
  • Who is doing the majority of the work… the person giving or the person receiving the feedback?
  • Do your students engage in tasks that allow for multiple opportunities for feedback to happen naturally?

PS.   Did you notice which of the students’ examples above had made an error.  What feedback would you give?  How would they receive this feedback?




Who makes the biggest impact?

A few years ago I had the opportunity to listen to Damian Cooper (expert on assessment and evaluation here in Ontario). He shared with us an analogy talking to us about the Olympic athletes that had just competed in Sochi.  He asked us to think specifically about the Olympic Ice Skaters…

He asked us, who we thought made the biggest difference in the skaters’ careers:  The scoring judges or their coaches?

Think about this for a second…  An ice skater trying to become the best at their sport has many influences on their life…  But who makes the biggest difference?  The scoring judges along the way, or their coaches?  Or is it a mix of both???

Damian told us something like this:

The scoring judge tells the skater how well they did… However, the skater already knows if they did well or not.  The scoring judge just CONFIRMS if they did well or not.  In fact, many skaters might be turned off of skating because of low scores!  The scoring judge is about COMPETITION.  Being accurate about the right score is their goal.

On the other hand, the coach’s role is only to help the skater improve. They watch, give feedback, ask them to repeat necessary steps… The coach knows exactly what you are good at, and where you need help. They know what to say when you do well, and how to get you to pick yourself up. Their goal is for you to become the very best you can be!  They want you to succeed!

In the everyday busyness of teaching, I think we often confuse the terms “assessment” with “evaluation”   Evaluating is about marking, levelling, grading… While the word assessment comes from the Latin “Assidere” which means “to sit beside”.  Assessment is kind of like learning about our students’ thinking processes, seeing how deeply they understand something…   These two things, while related, are very different processes!


I have shared this analogy with a number of teachers.   While most agree with the premise, many of us recognize that our job requires us to be the scoring judges… and while I understand the reality of our roles and responsibilities as teachers, I believe that if we want to make a difference, we need to be focusing on the right things.  Take a look at Marian Small’s explanation of this below.  I wonder if the focus in our schools is on the “big” stuff, or the “little” stuff?  Take a look:


Marian Small – It’s About Learning from LearnTeachLead on Vimeo.

Thinking again to Damian’s analogy of the ice skaters, I can’t help but think about one issue that wasn’t discussed.  We talked about what made the best skaters, even better, but I often spend much of my thoughts with those who struggle.  Most of our classrooms have a mix of students who are motivated to do well, and those who either don’t believe they can be successful, or don’t care if they are achieving.

If we focus our attention on scoring, rating, judging… basically providing tasks and then marking them… I believe we will likely be sending our struggling students messages that math isn’t for them.  On the other hand, if we focus on providing experiences where our students can learn, and we can observe them as they learn, then use our assessments to provide feedback or know which experiences we need to do next, we will send messages to our students that we will all improve.

Hopefully this sounds a lot like the Growth Mindset messages you have been hearing about!

Take a quick look at the video above where Jo Boaler shows us the results of a study comparing marks vs feedback vs marks & feedback.

So, how do you provide your students with the feedback they need to learn and grow?

How do you provide opportunities for your students to try things, to explore, make sense of things in an environment that is about learning, not performing?

What does it mean for you to provide feedback?  Is it only written?

How do you use these learning opportunities to provide feedback on your own teaching?

As  always, I try to ask a few questions to help us reflect on our own beliefs.  Hopefully we can continue the conversation here or on Twitter.